Prized tailors at loose ends

Savile Row clothiers of royalty and movie stars flee soaring rents in London's West End

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July 20, 2006|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

LONDON -- Two hundred years of history are coming unstitched on Savile Row, as tailors who make bespoke clothes for the rich and famous flee soaring rents.

Sewing shops along the street where Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Britain's Prince Charles once bought custom-made suits are being converted into luxury offices and stores. The growth of London's financial services industry has made the West End, where Savile Row is located, the most expensive place in the world to rent office space.

"Savile Row's tailors are a diminishing breed of craftsmen and should be protected," said Meredith Davies, 41, a lawyer in London's financial district and a Savile Row customer.

Tailors first moved to Savile Row to be near military officers and the royal family. George "Beau" Brummel, known as the first dandy, patronized the shops and helped make gentlemen's fashion popular in the early 1800s. The tailors' individually made garments were called "bespoke," to indicate that a piece of cloth had been spoken for.

Two centuries later, Savile Row's craftsmanship remains in demand and brings high prices. Its cutters and tailors produced 10,000 custom-made suits last year. Sales rose about 5 percent to 21 million pounds ($39 million), according to the Savile Row Bespoke trade group.

Prices for men's two-piece suits start at about 2,000 pounds. A bespoke suit requires three fittings and 50 hours of cutting, and is mostly stitched by hand.

Despite the demand, the shops are consolidating because of higher rents, a shift toward ready-to-wear clothes and fewer young people entering the trade. The number of tailors sewing handmade suits has fallen to about 300 from 1,000 in the early 1900s, according to the trade group.

Rent increases on Savile Row averaged 57 percent in the past 10 years, said Mike Jones, a partner at Drivers Jonas, management agent for the Pollen Estate. The Pollen Estate, Savile Row's biggest landowner, is a private trust set up in 1812, with the Church of England its main beneficiary.

Building owners can charge four times as much rent for retail space than tailor shops, according to a report in March by the Westminster Council municipal authority.

Anderson & Sheppard, once Savile Row's biggest tailor and the maker of double-breasted suits for Prince Charles, moved a block away when its lease expired last year. Its building was turned into offices.

Anthony J. Hewitt, a Savile Row tailor for 32 years, vacated the front of his store 18 months ago when the rent rose 40 percent to 105,000 pounds a year. Evisu Saburo, a Japanese clothier selling men's jeans for 160 pounds, took over the space, while Hewitt keeps his workshop in the back.

"Savile Row was made famous by the tailors, and now everybody wants in," said Michael Skinner, a fourth-generation tailor.

The street became a trendsetter with the smoking jacket that Henry Poole & Co. made for the Prince of Wales in 1860, according to the company's Web site. The jacket became the tuxedo when a friend of the prince brought a version to the United States, where it was widely copied.

"Our job is to make a suit that looks good and covers the flaws of the body," said Alan Bennett, 55, the owner of Davies & Sons, which has acquired four other tailor businesses since 1996.

The tailor shops that remain on Savile Row are strong, and most will survive, Bennett said.

"Savile Row doesn't just live on history," said Patrick Grant, 34, who acquired Norton & Sons tailors in December after earning a business degree at Oxford University. "It still trains fabulous tailors and turns out the best clothes in the world."

Still, some new stores in the area advertise bespoke suits that don't meet traditional standards. They use pre-cut patterns, rather than custom ones, and send fabric overseas to be sewn, said Malcolm Plews, 60, a partner at Welsh & Jeffries tailors.

Upscale chain stores "will pay anything the landlord asks to get a Savile Row address, but unfortunately they're not tailors," he said. The shops that remain still display scarlet naval uniforms, suits and bespoke bathrobes. Wool, button and thread merchants are nearby, and basement sewing workshops are visible from the sidewalk.

Westminster Council began an effort to help preserve bespoke tailoring this year, vowing to veto requests to transform workshops into retail space, spokesman Tariq Tahir said.

The tailors plan to promote their businesses to keep their tradition alive, said Mark Henderson, chief executive officer of Gieves & Hawkes.

They still must cope with the fact that the West End is the most expensive place in the world to rent office space, according to an annual survey by real estate agents Cushman & Wakefield.

"Rents can't be managed," the Pollen Estate's Jones said. "They're a factor of supply and demand and the market."

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